A drizzly Monday, and Dover Street Park in North Oakland is deserted: a broad, bare lawn, circled by a perimeter that’s been given over to food plants and — starting at the park’s northeast corner, a growing chain of young fruit trees. But if two nearby residents get their way, part of Dover Street Park’s pioneering food garden will have to be uprooted, and plans for expansion will grind to a halt.
Over the past year, the city of Oakland has given informal permission to the Dover Street Neighborhood Group and the nonprofit Phat Beets Produce collective to establish a communal garden in the park. With the support of an obesity prevention clinic at nearby Children’s Hospital, Dover Street Park’s Healthy Hearts Youth Market Garden and Orchard has become a 4,000-square-foot vegetable and herb garden, punctuated by 25 fruit saplings, a collection that includes Shinseiki pear, Methley plum, and Pink Lady apple trees. Volunteers show up every Wednesday for a garden work party, and the small amount of food produced by the young garden is distributed free to workers, park visitors, and to various Phat Beets programs, including cooking demos.
The problem: Healthy Hearts has been operating without a formal contract from the city, but from what collective member Max Cadji calls a “verbal agreement,” given by Oakland’s Public Works department with help from the office of city council president Jane Brunner. And according to Cadji, two longtime park neighbors recently pressed the city about giving the Healthy Hearts coalition permission to transform the park, including painting a food-justice-themed mural along the back fence.
“They called the city out, saying, ‘Where’s the permit for all of this?’” Cadji told What the Fork.
Now, Oakland Parks and Rec is considering whether to scale back the food garden, by removing a third of the already-planted fruit trees, preventing future expansion of the vegetable plantings around the rest of the park’s perimeter, and maybe even removing the mural. The issue comes before the Oakland Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee (PRAC) at its regularly scheduled public meeting this Wednesday, June 8. Cadji said the garden coalition has gone door-to-door to muster support for the garden, collecting some 400 signatures from neighbors. WTF was unable to contact the neighbors who lodged concerns about the Healthy Hearts garden.
Cadji thinks the pushback at Dover Street is part of the very complex political dynamic in the area, plus the food garden here represents an entirely new model. “It’s a garden in a park, so the city’s put it under the category of a community garden, but it’s not a traditional community garden with individual plots,” Cadji said, “it’s more of a communal garden. The city doesn’t really know where to put us. At this point they see it as a liability issue, but this is a community asset.”
Cadji hopes garden supporters won’t be shy about speaking out at Wednesday’s meeting. “We want PRAC to know that this is the beginning of a lot of people taking ownership over their parks,” he said. “It would be good for people thinking about doing similar things in other parks to have a clear process on how to do this.”
Wednesday’s PRAC meeting starts at 4:30 p.m. at the Lakeside Park Garden Center, 666 Bellevue Ave., near Children’s Fairyland at Lake Merritt.